A stirring tale:
pioneering the world's tea trade
Our heritage has been intertwined with tea production for hundreds of years.
Here, we reveal the story of our early beginnings with the iconic beverage, going back to the 1600s
Available in a vast array of forms and flavours, tea – arguably the world’s most popular beverage – is enjoyed by millions of people around the globe daily. But it wasn’t always so. In addition to trading in luxurious goods such as exotic spices, fine fabrics and bullion, The East India Company played a pivotal role in introducing tea not only to the British populace, but to the entire western world.
Archives show that Western explorers became aware of tea as early as 1285, when the Venetian merchant Marco Polo witnessed the deposition of a Chinese minister of finance for his arbitrary augmentation of tea taxes. Other travellers – such as geographer Giovanni Batista Ramusio and military commander Lourenço de Almeida – also detailed tea in their 16th century records. In 1557, word of a Chinese drink called “chá” spread quickly after the Portuguese established a trading port in Macau. Before 1600, Portugal controlled trade with India and the Far East, although there is no mention of its fleets bringing tea samples back to Portugal.
Later, in the early 1600s, a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company is said to have brought the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam from China, while the beverage became known in France by 1636, where it sparked a brief flurry of popularity in Paris in 1648. Early tea imports to Britain most likely came via Amsterdam or through the sailors voyaging on eastern ships. Later, regular trade began in Guangzhou (then known as Canton). Trade was controlled by two monopolies: the Chinese Hongs and the British East India Company.
On a commercial level, merchants began to sell tea in England during the 1650s, where it became available in coffee houses. In true entrepreneurial spirit, the merchant Thomas Garway was one of the first to trade tea in Britain, beginning in 1657. Not only did he sell tea at his London coffee house – in both dry and liquid form – he proclaimed that tea was “wholesome, preserving perfect health until extreme old age, good for clearing the sight, able to cure gripping of the guts, cold, and scurvy”, adding that the liquor had the power to make the body active and lusty. While tea was initially regarded as a tonic with medicinal properties, by the end of the 1600s it was widely enjoyed as a drink, especially by the aristocracy.
King Charles II and his wife Catherine, making tea fashionable since 1664
In England, tea drinking became truly fashionable upon the marriage of King Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese-born noble who had an enthusiastic appetite for tea. At the time, The East India Company ships returning to British shores would traditionally bring gifts for the reigning Sovereign.
However, in 1664, it transpired that one gift for King Charles II had been overlooked – so instead, the Company sourced two pounds of tea to present to the King. His Queen was so delighted with the gift that she introduced it to aristocratic circles and the Court, so beginning the tradition of Royal tea drinking – as well as sparking the British love affair with the beverage. From there on in, tea began to be imported to the UK on a significant scale, with the populace soon acquiring a taste for what is now indisputably the national drink. Once the beverage had taken hold in the UK, it was introduced to British colonies, in America and beyond.
Intertwined with the very fabric of British identity, tea remains as vital a part of The East India Company today as it first was in the 17th century. Our extensive range features varieties sourced from all over the world, from Iran and Kenya to Taiwan, Sri Lanka and beyond, offering a sensory spectrum of aromas, flavours and textures – as well as a multitude of fascinating stories. For instance, our Royal Breakfast black tea is a tribute to the Royal tradition of tea drinking, beginning with The East India Company’s gift of tea made to King Charles II and his Queen, Catherine of Braganza, back in 1664.
Discover more about our tea range here.